“Got a great voice don’t I? A woman once said to me my voice was like butter,” Todd Barry told us at one point in his 20-minute set at the Laughing Devil Comedy Club[*] last night, and this hypothetical woman’s absolutely right. Barry’s voice is reedy and deep like a bass clarinet, and he adds at the ends of certain setups and punchlines a kind of exhaled drawl that we come to take as a signal. Here’s kind of how it works/sounds:
I don't eat right. I see people who eat worse than me now. I saw a guy eating lunch he had a burger, fries, milkshake... beer. Burger-fries. Milkshake-beer.
Underlines for when that drawl gets deployed. Like I said it works as a signal, the way certain ghosts do, the ones who are continually slipping around corners. It’s a voice that beckons: Here, follow me for a sec. I’m going to take you somewhere very interesting.
Barry’s comedy is narrative and rich with detail. His jokes involve a basic format, where some anecdote that illustrates a personal habit or interest of Barry’s is turned, through dialogue, into a kind of absurdist fantasy. One bit was about phones dropped in toilets:
I asked a friend if she ever dropped her phone in the toilet and she said, “I did but there was no pee in there.” Really, never? That’s the luckiest series of events ever.
This is all Barry needs to set up a world where the falseness his friend believed is made literal and true:
They’re installing a new toilet? Who’s first in line—you are! Mayor cuts the ribbon. Glare from the scissors blinds you. You slip you fall. Where does your phone go? Into the crystal clear waters, of an innocent virgin toilet.
In reading the above, insert laughs after every punctuation mark, laughs Barry’s won by both the slow and steady timing of each line, and also the specificity of detail. And it’s interesting how much work timing and detail do to make us laugh, because the thing about these absurdist fantasies Barry paints is that, given the way they’ve been set up, we know precisely where it’s headed. I mean: this isn’t the surprise of a punchline. There’s no turn that delights us into laughing. When Barry asks “Where does your phone go?” we know he’s going to say “the toilet.” But he says “Into the crystal clear waters,” and we laugh that he hasn’t yet said “the toilet.” And when he says “of an innocent, virgin toilet” we laugh again because he didn’t only say “the toilet.”
It’s his voice that does the jokework, but it’s the absurdism that reveals the jokestuff, if you will—the thing we’re all meant to laugh at. So many comics we like we like because they speak certain truths. Jon Stewart. Kathy Griffin. Bill Hicks. Joan Rivers. Todd Barry, too. His comedy is like a Beckett play, where all the characters say to each other what normally is never said, and often can never be said.
- It’s in Long Island City, which is close, in Queens. We were told it’s the smallest comedy club in New York City, and given that the stage was about the size of a dining room table, and the room not much wider than an SUV, I don’t doubt it. It’s an incredibly intimate space to see comedy, and so it was a total shame to see it run like a big impersonal comedy club. Yes there was a two-drink minimum Yes, assigned seating. Yes, the menu pushed overpriced party cocktails named for famous comedians. (“That’s a huge drink, holy shit. Did you order the Todd Barry?” Barry asked one audience member last night. “It’s a shot of funny and another shot of funny.”) So while I got excited by the place when we first arrived, the club-style rigidity made it a drag. It’s the perfect way to ruin such an intimate venue.↵